From Zero to Hero
After a friend of mine and I saw the way-cool trailer for Mystery Men recently, I turned to him and said, “If this movie sucks, my faith in Hollywood will be utterly and irreparably crushed forever.” He nodded in sad agreement.
I’m happy to report, having now seen the movie that goes with the trailer, that my final disillusionment has been postponed, at least for a little while. Mystery Men is a dream of a summer flick: outrageously funny, unabashedly hip, totally cool, with just a hint of heart beating under a cynicism that’s well beyond skin deep — and I mean that in the best possible way.
Champion City has been all but cleared of evildoers by Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear: You’ve Got Mail, As Good as It Gets), whose chiseled mug with its perpetually cocked eyebrow is plastered across the city on billboards with slogans like “Crime? Not here!” Still, petty misdemeanors abound, and Mystery Men opens with one of them: a robbery at a frighteningly weird party that, if I didn’t know better, I’d say was a takeoff on Eyes Wide Shut‘s orgy. To the rescue comes a band of hopeless heroes as likely to beat up each other as they are the baddies: Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller: There’s Something About Mary, Zero Effect), a mountain — okay, a molehill — of impotent rage; the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria: Godzilla), the “master of cutlery” with a hilariously fakey British accent; and the Shoveler (William H. Macy: Psycho, Pleasantville), an ordinary suburban family man with one talent: “I shovel well. I shovel very well.”
Needless to say, Captain Amazing — looking like a NASCAR driver, his costume covered with advertising patches for Pepsi and Penzoil — shows up and shows them up, the publicist in tow ensuring that Amazing will get all the press. But when Captain Amazing is kidnapped by supervillain Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush: Elizabeth, Shakespeare in Love) — gotta love that name! — Furious, Raja, and the Shoveler get their opportunity to really save the day. They join forces with the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo: Clay Pigeons, The Matchmaker), who carries around a bowling ball containing her father’s skull; the Spleen (Paul Reubens) — his secret weapon is “silent but deadly”; and Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), whose superpower only works when no one is watching. The havoc these six wreak is indescribably funny — watch for the attack on Casanova’s limo — and culminates in a plot twist that’s so unexpected and so wonderfully perverse that I’m still shaking my head and chuckling to myself, still unable to believe that they actually did that.
This unnamed band of second-stringers are the apotheosis of Generation X, the ultimate personifications of underappreciated, overly put down twenty- and thirtysomethings. Superheroes as nerds and losers — they hang out in the diner and argue over the check; the Blue Raja lives with his mom; they fight 70s-throwback bad guys (read: Boomers) who respond to the claim that “disco is dead” with adamant screams of “Disco is life!” The shoe fits rather comfortably on a generation that even as kids knew it was more Scooby-Doo than Superfriends, though we fantasized about being The Incredible Hulk, The Six Million Dollar Man, or a member of The A Team. Cynical Xers like me will delight to see such cherished institutions of our childhoods referenced here and then tossed aside as so much campy crap.
Newer traditions get skewered, too. The retro-futuristic look of comic-book movies is no longer surprising or original, but Mystery Men sends up its own design. Champion City may be Blade Runner meets Batman meets Brazil, constantly rain-slicked and night-shrouded, but humorous touches are thrown in: Dozens of dirigibles float over the city, their tickers scrolling Captain Amazing’s latest headlines; neon signs come not only in English but also in Japanese, Arabic, and even Hebrew; and sprinkled here and there in the seas of billboards are those ironing directions you find on clothing tags, complete with the pictogram of an iron.
Making Mystery Men really fly, though, is a cast of actors Who Can Do No Wrong. Absolutely everybody onscreen is having a ball. You can practically feel the glee with which Kinnear sports his Clark Kent glasses to (not at all) disguise the fact that his billionaire Lance Hunt is also Captain Amazing, and with which Rush wields his bizarre accent as the over-the-top supervillain. Stiller and Garofalo are as effortlessly brilliant as always, their Mr. Furious and Bowler both equal mixtures of self-hatred and misanthropy, vulnerability and hidden strength. But Macy and Azaria deserve the biggest kudos for giving their Shoveler and Blue Raja surprisingly moving undercurrents of pathos amidst all the mania onscreen. In fact, I’ll admit right now that I worship at the feet of Azaria, one of the most talented, most grossly undervalued performers in Hollywood. Give that man a starring role!
If you liked Men in Black and Buckaroo Banzai and TV’s The Tick, if you know that Batman and Superman can take some ribbing and not be diminished, then run out and enjoy Mystery Men.